Threats and opportunities for Asian medical tourism

Pongsakorn Chindawatana at Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, in a recent speech, warned the country not to become complacent, as local rivals are more than ready to pick up business, “The major barrier is politics. If political demonstrations become chaotic to the point of closing airports, this will undermine patients’ confidence, and they might decide to go elsewhere. So far, there have been no cancellations of trips as the political scenario is relatively calm. But we must keep monitoring the situation closely over the next few months.”

Doctor Chindawatana says that Thailand is second to no other country in the region for the quality of its medical services. The country’s medical advancement is also internationally recognised for its high standards. It is essential for the government and private sectors to make a joint effort to promote this service on the global stage.

Thailand is a hub, but only geographically. So far, there is no clear evidence to show that any country in the region, whether Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand, will succeed in the goal of becoming such a hub permanently. All three nations are still scrambling to adopt marketing strategies to publicise their services and claim status as the regional medical-service destination.

Singapore has a competitive edge as a nation with a high number of Chinese speakers, which makes it attractive to the large number of affluent mainland Chinese. The island nation has earned a reputation for its medical services established by Britain during its colonial period, boosting patients’ confidence. Most important, it has in the past marketed these services aggressively, and could do so again.

Singapore is a rich country that will expand its service regionally, especially into Thailand, by establishing hospital networks or other forms of medical services, after the opening of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

Malaysia, as a Muslim nation, has an edge over Singapore and Thailand when targeting Arab patients.

Thailand has a price advantage that it is often 10% to15% cheaper than those other two nations. But cost savings may not be a key factor for some foreign tourist groups when they decide where to go. They will choose to go to the country where they feel most comfortable, especially in terms of culture and language. Thailand is rich in natural tourism resources where patients can recuperate after their treatments. Friendly service and good hospitality are also magnets.

Pongsakorn made the point that Thailand should keep its focus on the Asian market, which shows big potential, especially after the AEC opening- and not get diverted into trying to attract what may be hypothetical large numbers from the USA or Europe. There is more long term profit to be made in targeting local countries that are far less advanced medically, “The number of people from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia going to Thailand for treatment is on the rise .We have no need to adjust ourselves much to serve people from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia because they share similarities with Thai culture.”

The Ministry of Public Health has launched its latest medical tourism strategy, a four-year plan to cement Thailand as the leading medical hub in Asia, with a target of annual income of $6 billion per year by the end of 2017. To counter criticisms that medical tourism is taking doctors and nurses away from the public health sector, the ministry plans to train more doctors and nurses to meet public health care staffing shortages.

Medical tourism adds an estimated 0.4% to Thailand’s economy every year, which raises income for the medical services sector, concluded Anchana NaRanong and Viroj NaRanong in a 2011 World Health Organisation study of the impacts of the industry.